During an animated discussion with my older son, a junior in high school, about themes of abandonment in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, my younger son, who is in 7th grade, looked up from his laptop and commented, “Dr. Frankenstein really was a butt, wasn’t he?”
We are an intellectually engaged family. Discussions about politics, literary and film criticism, philosophy and scientific breakthroughs are standard. We sit around the dinner table or stand around in the kitchen talking about everything from black holes to existentialism to the history of the papacy.
Both my sons have a ravenous, creative, highly eccentric passion for learning. But they don’t do exceptionally well in school. The older one is having trouble getting his homework done. He tries to focus on an assignment, but he keeps getting these wonderful, exciting ideas that distract him. Instead of slogging through his math problems, he’ll be composing a piece of music. Or he thinks of some original, challenging way of doing tedious work, like answering all of his Civics questions in haiku. He’ll spend all night turning a single assignment into a work of art, forgetting about what else might be due.
My younger son, the one who commented on the buttness of Dr. Frankenstein, is just bored. He used to neglect his homework assignments, memorizing multiplication tables or cutting out vocabulary words and pasting them in alphabetical order, because he was more interested in his brother’s algebra. He was in first grade when he got curious about negative numbers. His teacher put him off. It wasn’t in the curriculum.
The public schools have failed my kids, and all the others like them. I don’t blame the teachers, or the particular schools. I blame an utter failure in national educational philosophy. It can largely be expressed in one word: Standardization. And it can be traced to people who are not educators making sweeping decisions about education. That’s like someone who has been to a restaurant deciding they are qualified to tell the chef how to run the kitchen.
I have a bit of an insider’s knowledge about this, because the boys’ father is a teacher. He has spent over ten years in a middle school language arts classroom. It’s been a process of disillusionment and frustration going from a culture of progressive innovation to one obsessed with standardized testing. He knows all about bright students whose potential is wasted in boredom. He has lots of ideas about how to motivate them, but he can’t implement them. It isn’t in the prescribed curriculum.
There’s this bizarre Federal mandate ironically called “No Child Left Behind” which requires all public schools to produce progressively increasing scores on a set of Procrustean tests. If a struggling school in a poor district with a challenging student population can’t keep up, they lose federal funding. Never mind that those are the schools that need the help most. No matter how rude, indifferent, disturbed or defiant a student is, the teacher is expected to deal with it and get results. Or else.
I wouldn’t want to be a teacher. When they are selfless and gifted and work wonders with difficult students, they are praised and put on a pedestal. But let them ask for compensation for their struggles, for a decent wage, benefits, a retirement plan, and they are vilified. School budgets are cut, teachers’ contracts are voted down. They get accused of being freeloaders and a drain on the taxpayer. Politicians who wouldn’t dream of relinquishing one percentage point of their own benefits, demand that teachers pay more for theirs. Pundits call them lazy and selfish. They get trashed on Fox and Facebook.
Never mind motivating students. Where’s the motivation in being a teacher?
I expect the American public education system will continue to decline. Those who can afford to pay for it will send their kids to well-funded private schools, who will hire the best teachers because they are willing to pay them. The graduates of these private schools will naturally move on to prestigious universities, which are also becoming too expensive for the average working-class family, like those, for instance, that earn a teacher’s salary. The graduates of these prestigious universities will then score the best-paying jobs, ensuring that the cycle continues for another generation. Guess who gets left behind.
So we supplement our boys’ education at home, providing them with the specialized intellectual opportunities that they aren’t going to get at public school. We talk to them about critical thinking and media literacy and quantum theory and the political process, and why the public schools are failing them. It probably won’t help them excel on the standardized tests. As subtly apropos as it might be, I doubt that there are any questions about the buttness of Dr. Frankenstein.